Cruise-ship wastewater often exceeds federal water quality and discharge standards at the point it’s released, according to a recent federal government draft report that environmental groups have been seeking for nearly eight years.
Although advanced wastewater treatment systems, which use newer technology, are far better at removing pollutants such as fecal coliform, suspended solids and chlorine than traditional marine sanitation devices, the report said, the majority of ships use the less efficient systems.
Roughly 60 percent of the 130 ships operated by major U.S. cruise lines still use the older systems, according to an estimate last year from the Cruise Lines International Association.
The cruise industry has drawn increasing attention from environmental groups in recent years, because of its rapid expansion and foray into environmentally sensitive corners of the globe.
According to Fort Lauderdale-based CLIA, which represents 24 major cruise operators, ship capacity has burgeoned more than 36 percent since 2002. The industry carried about 12.5 million passengers in 2007. Eight new ships will be introduced this year alone.
The Environmental Protection Agency is asking for public comment on the draft report, including recommendations on ”whether and how to better control and regulate” cruise-ship pollution both nationally and in Alaska, which has tougher standards.
The agency expects to produce a final report by year-end. But environmentalists don’t expect much action out of the EPA.
”It seems clear that neither the EPA under the Bush administration nor Congress plans to do anything about controlling cruise-ship dumping of sewage or gray water any time soon, despite the polluted condition of our oceans and the rapid expansion of the industry into the most pristine waters of North America,” said Teri Shore, campaign manager for marine programs at Friends of the Earth, an environmental group.
Friends of the Earth sued the EPA last May for dragging its feet in issuing the report, which responds to a March 2000 petition from environmental groups asking the agency to assess and regulate cruise-ship pollution.
FORCED TO REPORT
The EPA finally released the draft report in December as part of a settlement of the litigation. Notably absent from the EPA draft are any recommendations or conclusions about whether more regulation is needed.
”When EPA completes the Cruise Ship Discharge Assessment Report after consideration of public comment, EPA plans to identify a range of options and alternatives to address these waste streams,” an EPA spokeswoman said in an e-mail.
On a separate front, the EPA is battling in federal appeals court in California to overturn a ruling that would clamp additional regulations on cruise ships and other vessels.
But the EPA draft report does find cause for concern. According to the report, treated sewage from traditional marine sanitation devices contained concentrations of fecal coliform and suspended solids far above EPA standards. In addition, the traditional sanitation devices consistently dumped more bacteria into the water than is safe to meet water quality standards.
Advanced wastewater treatment systems produced far cleaner effluents, but even those exceeded national water quality standards for metals, chlorine and ammonia at the point it’s released, according to the EPA report.
The agency report suggests that the dilution of pollutants as they disperse in the ocean largely blunts any impact, although environmentalists dispute that.
`DILUTION NO SOLUTION’
‘We’re very disappointed they come around to `dilution is the solution to pollution’ — the idea that it’s OK to dump in the ocean, because it’s going to be diluted,” said Jackie Savitz, senior director for pollution campaign for Oceana, an environmental group.
By considering dilution, ”you can’t look at the cumulative effect. Think how many ships were in the same place,” Savitz said.
The cruise industry, through CLIA, has adopted standards for dumping sewage. Its members restrict discharges of treated sewage from the traditional systems to at least four miles offshore when traveling at least six nautical miles an hour.
Similarly, their standards call for untreated gray water, which comes from sinks, showers and laundries, to be dumped at least four miles offshore when a ship is going at least six knots to ensure dilution at sea.
”If you have the older MSDs, the practice is you hold your wastewater until you’re well offshore,” said Michael Crye, an executive vice president and lobbyist for CLIA.
“You either hold your wastewater until you’re well offshore or you treat it with an advanced system.”